Yoga: Classical, Modern & Authentic

I helped create Yoga Alliance by serving as the founding President. I learned a lot from the many yogis involved in establishing national standards for yoga teachers. Three of yoga’s then-living masters sent personal representatives: BKS Iyengar, Swami Satchidananda and Yogi Bhajan. Each of them emphasized yogis getting together. In spite of the differences we perceived in our styles, they saw only common ground. They honored all the practices.

It was wonderful to have their guiding hand giving a background of steadiness as we found and honored our similarities. It wasn’t easy but we had lots of help. Unity in Yoga gave us their not-for-profit organization, which they’d been running for 10 years, trail-blazing for the same purpose. Kripalu Center sent one of their senior staff, certified in group dynamics, to lead us through the rough patches. I invested five years of full-time volunteer work. It was arduous, but I felt honored to midwife the process.

Now heading an Ashram, I teach an “authentic yoga.” Other Western teachers and I use this term to point to yoga’s timeless promise: enlightenment. But everyone who thinks of yoga as exercise is also making progress toward this exalted goal. How?

When you take a yoga class, there is a difference in how you feel compared to after Zumba or Pound, even if you do a sauna and shower afterward. Exercise intentionally takes you to the edge of exhaustion, which most people associate with relaxation, but yoga energizes you while it relaxes you. Instead of being amped up, you’re in the zone — the inner zone. This is the stated goal of yoga, according to the sages of India. It doesn’t matter what style of yoga you choose, they all provide something special, an undeniable inner feeling. Yoga calls it shanti, peace, or purna, fullness.

The Gheranda Samhita describes classical yoga in verse 1.1: “…the science of the Training in Hardiness (Hatha Yoga)…” It further explains this as “the first rung on the ladder that leads to the supreme heights of Royal Training (Raja Yoga).” The poses (hatha yoga) are the first rung on the ladder that lifts you to the higher practices — meditation (raja yoga). The Sanskrit dictionary defines “hatha” as force, specifically a blow or punch, even translated as killing or slaughter. “Yoga” names a methodology dedicated to “union,” surrendering into your own Divinity through meditation. It’s a strange combination, force and surrender.

Modern yoga is completely consistent with the classical system that Gheranda describes — you focus on physical mastery now, as preparation for the meditative practices that will interest you a few years hence. Your growing health, beauty, strength and flexibility are only the tip of the iceberg. You are also developing your ability to focus your mind, use your breath and stay in a process that takes you through stages of development. All of this leads to your readiness for the inner work, in which you will harness all of these skills.

Three Sanskrit texts document the asana system, yet each says little about poses; only 10% of their sutras are devoted to physical practices. The other 90% is about meditation, the inward exploration that began with poses. Creating Yoga Alliance guaranteed that American yoga teachers know that poses are not the goal. They are only one of the eight limbs of yoga.

The word “hatha” also has a mystical meaning. Each syllable names the currents of energy flowing along the sides your spine, “ha” naming ida nadi on your left and “tha” naming pingala nadi on your right. The ancient tradition knew to balance both sides, in order to open up the current flowing through the center of your spine. It’s ecstatic. It’s empowering, uplifting, transformative and profoundly mystical. That’s what “authentic yoga” really means. Nothing less will truly satisfy you.

Swami Nirmalananda Saraswati leads Downingtown Yoga & Meditation Center and Svaroopa® Vidya Ashram in Downingtown PA. An American yogi, she is an inspiring teacher with a loving manner and a great sense of humor. Before becoming a swami (yoga monk), as Rama Berch, she served the yoga community as the founding president of Yoga Alliance. Traveling and teaching nationally and internationally, she is authorized to initiate people into deep meditation through Shaktipat, as did Swami Muktananda, her own Guru. The Ashram website features extensive Freebies, including articles and audio recordings on the principles of consciousness as taught by the sages of India, as well as how to apply them in your life today.

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